Modi’s visit won’t push Myanmar away from China toward India

By Bi Shihong  ( 13 September 2017) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Myanmar’s President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi during his three-day visit to Nay Pyi Taw earlier this month.

Following Htin Kyaw’s and Suu Kyi’s India visit in 2016, Modi stopped by Myanmar after attending the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, Southeast China’s Fujian Province.

Modi’s visit is regarded by the media as his determination to improve diplomatic ties with peripheral countries, especially when his previous diplomatic efforts were outshone by China’s.

India and Myanmar reached a number of memorandums on health, cultural exchange, tourism and maritime and coastguard security, even clinching a deal on maritime cooperation. India will also improve the India-funded construction of the ports in western Myanmar to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation.

Modi altered the “Look East” policy to the “Act East” policy in 2014, and since then, India has been attempting to strengthen ties with ASEAN countries in an action-oriented way.

Neighboring India to the east, Myanmar plays a key role in Modi’s Act East policy, a policy that is of vital importance to the stability and development of Northeast India.

Nepal and Bhutan largely maintained neutral on the China-India Doklam standoff, with India being racked with despair by its decreasing influences on peripheral countries.

Against the backdrop, Modi expressed his support for the Myanmese government after some Rohingya refugees flooded into India in the wake of the violence in Rakhine State.

Undocumented migrants are a joint security concern for India and Myanmar, and one of the main purposes of Modi’s Nay Pyi Taw visit was to tackle the issue.

By strengthening all-round cooperation with Myanmar, Modi attempts to check China in economy and security matters, hamper Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, and contain China’s influences in Asia.

Sitting between China and India in geography, Myanmar is susceptible to influences from both countries. Befriending the two neighbors is a strategic choice that best conforms to its national interests.

Given Myanmar’s diplomatic traditions, namely, striking a balance among powers for its own benefits, a cooperative and competitive Beijing-New Delhi relationship would best suit the country’s national interests.

Nay Pyi Taw, on the one hand, can maintain a balance between Beijing and New Delhi, and on the other, can take advantage of China-India competitive ties for benefits coming from both countries. Thus far, Myanmar has already profited from the Sino-Indian game.

Myanmar depends on India as a part of its navy modernization, reaching consensus with India on joint patrols and taking an open attitude toward India’s border corridors.

By clinching the above deals, Myanmar’s utmost motive is to win itself advanced technologies and commercial resources, rather than forging an alliance with other countries.

Meanwhile, India is not capable enough of implementing a full-scale Act East policy at the present moment either.

Myanmar will focus on development for some time in the future. By cooperating with China, Myanmar can involve itself in China’s value chain of production, and export its goods and services to the Chinese market.

Meanwhile, the economic gaps will provide both Beijing and Nay Pyi Taw with vast room for bilateral cooperation. With an export-oriented economy being a basis for the country’s economic take-off, Myanmar is economically reliant on China at present.

Therefore, although militarily supported by India, Myanmar is highly dependent on China in economic terms. This basic fact has determined the boundaries of the China-Myanmar relationship.

The author is a professor at the Center for China’s Neighbor Diplomacy Studies, Institute of the Belt and Road Initiative, Yunnan University. [email protected]. This article first appeared in Global Times on 13 September 2017.

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